Toronto has a thriving e-bike rental scheme (Photo by Maarten van den Heuvel on Pexels.com)

One of the largest reviews into e-bike knowledge has just been published, and it contains some surprising results, not least that while e-bikes might be displacing some conventional cycling, they are actually extending the “cycling career” of people who were about to give up or reduce cycling.

The finding came as positive news to lead researcher Jessica Bourne of the University of Bristol, who says e-bikes have come under a lot of criticism for displacing people off conventional bikes. “The criticism is, why put someone on a e-bike when they’re using conventional bike? They’re going to expend less energy… but what was exciting about our review was we found those people who were switching from a conventional bike to an e-bike had actually been considering not riding a bike anymore, so were extending their cycling career,” she says.

Researcher Jessica Bourne, of the University of Bristol, chats on Zoom about the e-bike scoping review

The “scoping review”, led by Bourne, pored over thousands of e-bike papers from high-end peer-reviewed science to community project reports, to find out just what we know about e-cycling and where research gaps could be filled.

After sifting out duplicate work and non-transport–related papers on battery technology and patents, some 76 papers were selected for more detailed content analysis as researchers asked themselves key questions: what is known about the frequency and duration of e-bike journeys? What is known about the purpose of e-bike use? What is known about the impact of e-bike use on overall travel behaviour?

The value of community reports

Bourne says a surprise in the study was the quantity of “grey literature” – community reports that lacked the reporting sophistication of peer-reviewed science but which nonetheless represented actual conditions “in the field”. More than a third of the papers studied came from such charity or community-led initiatives. “The commercial side was really ahead of what was going on [in academia], they were out actually trialling these things in the early 2000s and what was going on out there was really interesting,” she says. While scientific studies tend to require participants to ride a certain number of kilometres in certain conditions, Bourne says the community reports were more likely to say “here’s an e-bike, how are you going to use it?”.

“Fun factor” first

One thing “screaming out” from the review, says Bourne, is that people need to actually try e-bikes to love them. “People were so sceptical about an e-bike and then, just getting on one and trying it, loving it… this was a consistent view that came out over the studies,” she says, suggesting policy implications for cities to develop loan or trial programmes.

And another important finding was that e-bikes tend to substitute for the primary mode of transport in a city, be it car, bus, cycling or rail – which may sound obvious, but Bourne says its something which needs to be taken into account. “At a city level, if you wanted to have an impact on transport, it’s important to have a very good idea of the what the primary modes actually are and what you are going to be substituting,” she says. “You have to have a good understanding of what is going on in your city.”

Barriers to e-cycling, from Bourne’s paper, showing (in brackets) the number of studies reporting that specific barrier

One gap in the research was in terms of organisational capacity and workplaces. “Maybe it’s something people will consider more now, with the pandemic, but it’s interesting to see the findings that having facilities and central maintenance hubs for organisations to maintain people’s bikes, checking them in and out, good places to store them…if you don’t have that in an organisation, people are not going to be interested in riding them,” she says. Bourne says the parking issue is more prominent in e-bikes, given the expense of the machines. “For some people these are their pride and joy,” she says. “They’re not going to leave them outside a supermarket where someone can pick the lock.”

The study is part of a body of work completed by Bourne for her PhD, with a research focus on the potential health impacts of e-bikes on patients with Type 2 diabetes, an idea she says is “showing promise”. Bourne herself bikes around town on a conventional bike and says she cycles with her 10-month-old daughter in a trailer (with, she says, “a giant flag and lots of lights”) but she would consider getting an e-bike in the future.

“I cycle my daughter to nursery, and there’s a giant hill at the end, it might be good… my husband and I like to do a lot of bikepacking, it would be nice to have a bit of extra assist,” she says.

Bourne’s paper, The impact of e-cycling on travel behaviour: A scoping review is published in the December 2020 edition of the Journal of Transport Health and is available here.

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